Longtime secretary recalls 1/2 century working with Archbishop Hurley

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No one knew the late Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley like the person who served as his secretary from 1963 until his death on Jan. 10.

“Secretary,” however, doesn’t quite capture the key role Joann White played in the life of a priest who first hired her when he was assistant general secretary for what would eventually be known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While it became clear over the years that the future Archbishop Hurley was, in White’s words, a dynamic priest “who got his work done with a flourish,” it was also true that he was a visionary not always hung up on details. White kept a sharp eye on those details, and served as adviser, social director and host for more than 53 years. In her gentle but firm voice, she dealt with every phone caller and every visitor. Friends describe her as the picture of discretion.

“I learned so much from him about seeing good in people — about quiet, charitable giving,” White said. “He did so much of this: helping to pay families for children’s college tuition or mortgages during bad times, gas and electric payments that were overdue, food.”

A Maryland native, White was a secretary looking for work when a friend urged her to stop by the offices of what was then called the National Catholic Welfare Conference. She was 32 and the youngest of 11 children when she became personal secretary to the 36-year-old Monsignor Hurley.

She remembers him as “friendly and so respected” at the conference.

OFF TO ALASKA

When he was selected as a bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, he asked her to continue serving as his secretary. Despite visiting Alaska’s capital city for the installation where “it rained the whole four days” White said she had no hesitation about accepting the post.

“It was a very easy move,” she said.

Both she and the new bishop found Juneau, still a small town, a “wonderful place,” an easy place to make close friends. The Southeast Alaska diocese had a small population spread over a vast area. Just as they retained friends from the bishops’ conference, they made mutual friends in Juneau who remained close over the years.

“He kept in touch with people,” White said. “He made life-long friends.”

The new bishop took up flying lessons as way to keep up with his flock. Additionally, he “insisted that all priests come to Juneau once a month, because so many of them lived alone in isolated towns. Once, they even had a meeting on the ferry,” White recalled.

When the up-and-coming bishop was chosen to be archbishop of Anchorage it again fell on White to tie up the loose ends and help with the move. She said it took a little longer to make friends in Alaska’s largest city, but eventually Anchorage became home.

A FRIEND TO THE POOR

Like many, White believes Archbishop Hurley’s legacy is his concern for the poor and his ability to work with the community and even national contacts in order to solve problems.

“When he saw the numbers of homeless youth in Anchorage, he was shocked,” White recalled.

It wasn’t long, however, before the national organization Covenant House was persuaded to open a facility in Anchorage with help from the archdiocese to assist homeless youth. Brother Francis Shelter was another collaborative effort between city and church.

“He knew so many of the homeless,” White recalls, “especially from the earliest days of the (Brother Francis) Shelter. We would drive down the street and he would point to someone and say, ‘There’s George.’”

And people knew where he lived, in the modest neighborhood home near the Delaney Park Strip. White noted that even in the last days before his death, a street person rang the doorbell at 5 a.m. in the hopes of seeing his friend the archbishop.

SURPRISED BY THE POPE

One of the enduring highlights of Archbishop Hurley’s life, she said, was the 1981 visit to Anchorage of Pope John Paul II.

“I was on vacation back east, in D.C. and then on my way to Florida,” she recalls, a smile on her face after all these years, “and he called and told me I had to come back.”

Nothing, she told him, could make her sacrifice her Florida vacation.

“‘But someone very important is coming,’ Archbishop Hurley teased. And I said, ‘Nobody could be that important.’”

When he finally told her, she quickly flew back to Anchorage to plan for a papal visit that was only seven weeks away. White remembered the 7 a.m. Masses followed by a planning meeting every morning at Holy Family Cathedral.

Typical of the modesty and behind-the-scenes role White played, her only encounter with the pope was receiving Holy Communion from his hand at the Mass on the Park Strip.

TRIALS & SUFFERING

Despite many successes, White can point to hard times as well.

One of the worst, she said, was the discovery that Monsignor Francis Murphy was credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors in the 1980s. The garrulous priest had been helpful to many in the archdiocese, and a friend to many, including the archbishop.

“It was very, very hard,” White recalled. “People made it sound like the archbishop did nothing, but that wasn’t true. It was very difficult to see him suffer through it.”

Another hard memory is of the archbishop, after his retirement, falling alone at his cabin at Big Lake and not being discovered for 36 hours. It was a prelude to difficult years of health decline for the once robust and dynamic churchman.

After the archbishop’s retirement, White remained on duty part-time to help with his voluminous correspondence and continued involvement in the community. It’s a role she’ll wrap up over the next few weeks, cleaning out his office, deciding what should be kept and what tossed.

ROOTED IN ALASKA

Long ago, it became apparent to White – and to Archbishop Hurley – that their lives were inexorably tied to Alaska. In 2005, White’s last three siblings passed away within weeks of each other, and Alaska will remain home for her.

Her decision is mirrored by Archbishop Hurley’s final request, to be buried at St. John Neumann Mission, a two-hour drive south of Anchorage in Cooper Landing.

“He loved that little town and its setting,” White said. “He loved to say Mass at the little chapel with its beautiful view.”

But of course, she adds, friendship was a factor in Archbishop Hurley’s gravesite request. He had very close friends in Cooper Landing, she said, friends among whom he’ll now rest on an Alaskan hillside.


'Longtime secretary recalls 1/2 century working with Archbishop Hurley'
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